02 April 2008

Turning off the projector so I can see the light

This is an entry I had to stop working on for a while and just let sit. I'm only just now posting, even though this happened two-and-a-half weeks ago.

On April Fool's Day, when I thought I was almost over the cold (ha!) but still felt quite drained, I went to a reading at the Boulder Bookstore by Gerda and Lissa Rovetch of the delightfully goofy There Was a Man Who Loved A Rat and Other Vile Little Poems, which they had written together. Lissa, with whom I went to high school, told of how she had submitted the book proposal as a stack of her illustrations with her mother's limericky verses on paper plates. The publisher called her up and said no one had ever sent them a proposal in the form of a stack of illustrated paper plates, and not only did he want to publish the book but he also wanted to edit it personally. What a lovely reading that was. In a room packed with family and friends and former English teachers, it was clear that they are a loving and close-knit family. I saw someone I knew across the room and we all listened and laughed and sang along.

I was so tired and ready to go home and rest at that moment; my initial impulse was to dash home and buy a copy of the book on the next trip. But I wanted to say hello to Lissa and so I stayed and let some other things happen.

I said hello to a woman my father once dated for a while after he and my stepmother divorced, someone who I now think of as having made it through or past his net, like a silvery fish. She's a lovely person and I am always glad to see her and was as usual especially glad to see her as herself, not with my father. He made her life more difficult and complicated and dark, and it didn't work out with them. My mother and I like to think we helped with this outcome; at a family reunion that occurred when they were dating, my mother and I warned her about his alcoholism, his violence toward women. But I believe this woman already recognized this about him by then, from her own experiences and from her own family history with her father. So at the bookstore the other night I told her that I am "not in touch" with my father, and she listened.

The thing was, she was a very good listener. She reflected what I said right back to me, and suddenly I felt the odd sensation that I was projecting my father's negative energies into the world even though he wasn't anywhere nearby. Because of her reflective listening, I was able to see it and hear it and feel it in what came back to me. As we talked, I felt grateful to her for showing me this truth about myself. I felt kind of icky and sad about letting that color my own light, but also kind of detached: having seen it, I felt I could move forward.

The surprise for me has been in not finding this feeling through forgiveness. I've been on a search for an alternative that makes sense to me, and I think I found some of what I was looking for in a book by Alice Miller, a thinker on therapy who always has compelling insights for people who have suffered abuse as children. The Body Never Lies is her book about how the body holds onto traumas and the times that involved fighting for one's existence. She talks about how if you honor your body's intelligence, it will tell you about your true needs. She also says that when you find good listeners, helpful witnesses who acknowledge your truths, healing can occur more quickly.

In my Feldenkrais class a few months ago, the teacher talked about a study that showed the pinprick to the heel they do to collect blood from a newborn is a trauma that has effects on those children's bodies for years hence. And what Alice Miller says is that the Fourth Commandment, the context through which she and many of other were introduced to the notion of fealty to our elders, has it all wrong when we have been mistreated and misjudged by those same elders. All bets are off, then, Miller says. But it's not just a matter of not being obligated in our adulthood to feed the hands that slapped us when we were small and defenseless. In her book, she points to anecdotal evidence that people suffer physical illnesses and imbalances when they ignore the truths of their childhoods. People who continue to adopt their parents' perspective and rationalize on their behalf ("Oh, they were too young to have kids"; "They were only doing their best with what they came up with, which wasn't much when you look at their parents") tend to suffer more maladies as adults, Miller claims

Now, I don't think it's as simple a formula as Miller seems to imply. In The Body Never Lies, Miller attributes someone's pancreatic cancer to her willingness to accept her parents' plans for her despite her mistreatment as a girl. After the other reading I've been doing, however, I see about a thousand possible causes for that pancreatic cancer; the bodily effects of the kind of cognitive dissonance Miller describes could account for some but maybe not all the causes. (My one-woman think tank is tracking these results in a long-range study -- check back with me again in a few years.)

Okay, I have clambered up another limb into intellect-land again, but let me drift gently back down into my consciousness as I stood on the old wooden floor of the bookstore chatting with new and past friends after another acquaintance's reading, seeing myself and my projections in a new light. Perhaps it was being exhausted and feeling not so sparkly as usual that let me feel vulnerable and sad that night. It wasn't comfortable, and I felt myself soldier on through all the parts of the evening (dinner, going downtown, the reading, the chat, the attempt to buy the book, the attempt to get a signed copy), but I knew these feelings were okay, too. More than anything I felt a simple grief on my own behalf for what I had missed by being so preoccupied with all that pain. Despite her having received the brunt of the abuse in our family (my, there's a lot packed into that brunt), my mother has even moved past it in a way I have not (we saw this also when we both read Crystal Zevon's memoir of the life of her brilliant-yet-abusive-addict husband, the rock musician Warren Zevon, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. This book affected us entirely differently earlier this year).

The experience of the reading at the bookstore brought all those feelings up as I saw my high-school acquaintance surrounded by her loving and creative mother and father, their friends, and her high school English teacher. When I see that love-bath happening, that warm embrace of family and friends, I feel that sadness even more because I have that closeness and support from one of my primary parents, and most of my other familial ties feel so broken. At the same time, as soon as I say that, I feel the potential for this to change, and for me to change it. It feels the same as the realization that as an adult I could have the kind of home that has what I loved about going to my grandmother's, the feeling that this is a place where you are free to think and laugh and play games and celebrate being together. But I still don't know whether I can fully accomplish all this without forgiving my father.

On top of that, another friend I was talking with pointed me to her blog on ADD, Head in the Clouds, and I followed some of her links later and had to wonder whether I have ADD myself.

So I've been just sitting with all this ever since the night of that reading. I'm having a little trouble working up the steam to write my novel right now (having a cold for weeks isn't helping at all), but I'm sure that will shift eventually. Lissa and Gerda's poetry did inspire me to work again on my children's rhyme, "How can we convince the cat?" And like so many things, all this only increases my resolve to love and play more and support my kid in her tasks and desires and never treat her with cruelty or brutality.

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